The G8 summit in Lough Erne last month produced precious few policy commitments, but it served once again as a fascinating focal point for transnational advocacy networks. Among the more innovative contributions in this regard was agit8, a campaign by ONE to encourage the leaders of eight of the world’s largest economies and the European Union (EU) to end extreme poverty by 2030. ONE is an advocacy group founded by U2 lead singer Bono in 2004 that seeks to raise consciousness among policy-making elites about extreme poverty and preventable diseases rather than funds from the general public. In keeping with this mission, agit8 steered clear of the traditional charity single trope by inviting well-known musicians to contribute their favourite protest songs to an online campaign designed to draw attention to the decisions taken by G8 leaders in Lough Erne. Among the protest songs chosen here were standards such as the Clash’s London Calling, Bob Dylan’s Masters of War and the Specials AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela. Bono’s own contribution to this catalogue, a new acoustic version of U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, was a curious one.
As protest songs go, Sunday Bloody Sunday got off to a difficult start. First released in 1983, the song is ostensibly a rallying cry for restraint in response to the British Army’s killing of 26 people at a civil rights march in the Bogside a decade earlier. This pacifist protest rested uneasily, however, with the song’s apparent support for a United Ireland to the tune of a military drumbeat. Stranger still is the song’s evangelical evocation of Easter Sunday, a symbol of peace, perhaps, but also a rallying point for Irish republicanism since the Rising of April 1916. Still, the song is to be praised for its honest portrayal of the Troubles as viewed, with a sense of guilty detachment, through television sets in Dublin.
In truth, it was not the song’s lyrics but the manner in which they were sung that made Sunday Bloody Sunday such a powerful act of protest. Early performances were accompanied by Bono’s disclaimer that ‘this is not a rebel song’ and by the flying of a white flag on stage. The song was also sung sparingly, especially as violence intensified in Northern Ireland and the seeds of the Peace Process were sown. That all changed in the late 1980s, however, as Bono began to dedicate Sunday Bloody Sunday to other ‘conflict zones’ such as El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as to the work of Amnesty International. After a hiatus of nearly a decade, the song returned to U2’s set lists in the late 1990s, this time with a dedication to the people of Bosnia and, later still, as a backdrop to Bono’s messianic call for ‘coexistence’ between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In recent years, Sunday Bloody Sunday has been performed in honour of the Green Movement, a democratic advocacy group that formed in Iran in response to the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009. Hence the greetings sent to ‘the people of Iran’ in the agit8 version of the song.
This dedication and rededication of Sunday Bloody Sunday as a protest song speaks to the limitations of, what political scientist Richard Cooper calls, Bono’s brand of celebrity diplomacy. Cooper (2008) is right to recognise Bono’s extraordinary talent for transnational advocacy. Few, if any, celebrities can match U2’s front man for his determination to engage with the complexities of public policy and for his willingness to build coalitions across the political spectrum. These talents were on display at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2007. Here Bono moved seamlessly from performance at the Live 8 concert, which U2 opened with Paul McCartney, to pressure politics at the summit itself, where Bono and Bob Geldof harassed heads of state or government and held court before the assembled G8 press pack. Harry Brown (2013), the author of a new book about Bono, is critical of the U2 leader singer’s efforts at Gleneagles, which he sees as being unduly influenced by political and business leaders as well as the myth of Africa as a problem in need of a ‘Western’ solution. Such criticisms ignore the fact, however, that Bono succeeded where few others could in communicating the goals of the Make Poverty History campaign to a mass audience as well as to high-level policy-makers. For all these talents, Bono’s efforts as a political actor are limited by a lack of focus when it comes to policy priorities. Such shortcomings have been plain to see in the wake of the Gleneagles Summit, with the ONE campaign’s sporadic attempts to hold G8 members to account for their commitment to developing countries blurred by an increasingly eclectic array of campaigns on issues ranging from energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa to transparency among oil companies.
That a rock star with an estimated net worth of $600 million spends his time less effectively than he could by jumping from one political cause to one another is hardly a tragedy. What is tragic is that the ONE campaign and other non-governmental actors, having worked so hard to put development issues on the G8’s agenda, have allowed this agenda to drift. One sign of such slippage is the Enniskillen summit’s vague language on development aid. Here G-8 leaders agreed to ‘work with the poorest countries to help lift people out of poverty by keeping…aid promises and being accountable to the public for them’ (G8 2013a). Welcome though these words are, they gloss over the fact that France, Germany, Italy and the EU as a whole are behind in their efforts to raise overseas development aid as a percentage of Gross National Income to 0.7% (G8, 2013b). This shortfall is not surprising given Europe’s ongoing fiscal difficulties, but the Lough Erne G8 was nonetheless an opportunity missed to set more credible targets and engage in a frank discussion about the future of development policy in an age of austerity.
Browne, H. (2013) ‘The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)’ (London: Verso Books).
Cooper, A. (2007) Celebrity Diplomacy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers).